Cooperation means working together. Young children are learning how to cooperate with others and this learning takes time. As parents, we are responsible for teaching cooperation and this teaching requires patience, encouragement and realistic expectations of toddlers and preschoolers.
Emotions rule toddlers as they are becoming more autonomous and independent. They are learning that they have control over themselves. As their sense of independence grows toddlers often behave in ways that seem totally uncooperative. Toddlers are notorious for refusing to do what is asked of them, doing the opposite of what is asked, or flat out saying no.
Preschoolers are better able to use self-control as reasoning begins to play a part in their development and behavior. As their understanding grows preschoolers begin to cooperate more. Encouragement of this developing behavior is important.
Routines, setting limits, and giving choices are the most effective ways to help develop and encourage cooperation from young children.
Routines help structure the environment and provide children with predictability, consistency, and a sense of order. When events are predictable throughout the day and are consistent from day to day, children know what to expect. As a result, cooperation increases. The times parents typically struggle most getting young children to cooperate is mornings, mealtimes, and at bedtime. When creating a family routine determine which non-negotiable tasks are part of the routine. Keep routines short and very simple for toddlers. As kids get older you can expand on the routine and the tasks required, remembering to always keep expectations for children realistic. Having visual cues (pictures of children doing the expected behavior) as a reminder to young children of what is expected in a routine, or the order of a routine is helpful to teach and reinforce expectations and aid in cooperation.
Setting limits is about controlling the situation or the environment, not the child. Parents sometimes use the word cooperate when they mean obey. Parents feel they must control their children. Children must obey them and if they give up control parents fear their children will control them. Cooperation is working together and the reality is children want and need to feel some control too. Setting limits and structuring the environment for children rather than micromanaging behavior by ordering, directing, and correcting children all day long teaches responsibility. By controlling the situation rather than the child, children are given some positive control and the desire to work with us and cooperate increases dramatically.
Giving choices to toddlers and preschoolers within limits parents create is a win-win for both parents and children in gaining cooperation. By giving young children choices and involving them in the process they feel their wishes are valued which teaches them a lot about building independence and cooperation. When giving choices limit the number of choices available. Two or at most three choices maximum. Parents are always in control of what choices are acceptable in any given situation. When you offer a choice and your child says, “No, I want this one!” you should respond letting them know that option is not one of their choices and remind them of the choices that are being offered.
Children have their own minds. They won’t always cooperate and act as we wish they would. When we cooperate with children rather than trying to control them, when we are consistent with routines, limits, and giving children choices, we are modeling and teaching cooperation. With time and maturity, as children learn, kids will consistently begin working with us rather than against us. Your parenting counts!